From the August 22, 1994 issue of New York Magazine.
"If I hadn't been married, I'd probably have propositioned her myself," Mark Brown says of his sister-in-law Paula Corbin Jones, who is suing President Clinton for sexual harassment. "Paula dressed—shit, provocative ain't even the word for it. You could see the crease of her ass, and at least two lips, maybe three. If a woman dresses to where a man is almost seeing it. . . ."
"She'd wear a black tank top, tight-fitting and real low," Charlotte Brown says of her youngest sister, "and leopard-skin spandex shorts."
"Once after she came out of the bathroom with a gob of makeup on her," Mark says, drawing on a Winston, "I got my pocketknife out and I said, 'If you stand real still, I bet I could get three or four jars of Maybelline off your face.' "
The Browns sit under a live oak in front of their double-wide trailer in Cabot, Arkansas. A buzzard drifts overhead. Charlotte wears a rhinestone-spangled COUNTRY BLUES T-shirt, and Mark a denim shirt with his cuffs rolled up to reveal various tattoos: a dragon, a dancing showgirl, a Harley-Davidson emblem. Cabot itself, population 8,319, is one of those uneasy junctions that signpost a changing America. The Cabot Pawn Shop is deep in shotguns and hunting crossbows; funnel cakes are on sale downtown; and rumpled farms with front-yard tire swings quilt the countryside—until they slam into the Tastee-Freez, the sorry subdivisions, the billboard that commands you to FILL YOUR TANK TWICE at Texaco and McDonald's.
The Browns have a foot in each world: Mark used to be a D.J. at a Little Rock club, but now he runs a small welding shop. By either standard—old-fashioned country morals or modern situational ethics—the Browns disapprove of Paula Jones's behavior. They call her a hard-partying gold digger who pinched men's butts at the local Red Lobster and who's now trying to capitalize on a flirtation at the country's expense.
"Paula knows the rules, and now she's trying to change them," Mark says. "This is a great country; it's freedom-based. I like some white sons a bitches and I like some black motherfuckers. I hate some niggers and I hate some white trashes. Shit, I've worked right beside a welding woman—"
"You didn't sexually harass her, did you?" Charlotte prompts proudly.
"No, I think I did," Mark says. "She didn't take it as sexual harassment, though, so it must not have been. If I'm driving down the freeway and I see a dadgum woman that's got a good set of boobs and she's bouncing around on a dozer mowing down saplings, you bet your ass Mark Brown will stop his damned truck and stare. If her tits is going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and bouncing left and right and every fucking thing, you got rock and roll going on, man; and she knows what the hell she's doing up there, or she'd have a bra on."
American history is a parade of eras dominated by charismatic stock figures. These role-players bestride the popular imagination by sheer bravado; they become, for a time, the lodestars by which the rest of the country defines itself. We've had the era of Squanto; that of the Pilgrim; the Minuteman; the Indian fighter; the carpetbagger; the cowboy; the robber baron; the flapper; the doughboy; the organization man; the hippie; and, in the eighties, the soulless yuppie.
Now comes a new archetype to enslave us—and she enters spackled with Maybelline. The male version, "fondling his penis," asks the handiest female to "kiss it"—or so Paula Corbin Jones has alleged. Welcome to the age of white trash.
Traditionally, the label white trash has been applied to selective members of the white underclass—a rapidly growing group. In 1990, according to the census bureau, 24.5 million Caucasians were below the poverty line, up 29 percent from 17.3 million in 1980 (these figures are somewhat misleading as they include white Hispanics). "In raw numbers," notes conservative thinker Charles Murray, "European-American whites are the ethnic group with the most people in poverty, most illegitimate children, most women on welfare, most unemployed men, and most arrests for serious crimes."
But demographics are only part of the story. What's alarming is not so much the burgeoning number of people with low-rent circumstances as the exponential spread in stereotypically white-trash behavior, whether exhibited by those in the underclass or by figures like Roseanne Arnold and Bill Clinton.
The term white trash is, to be sure, divisive and classist. (The appellation originated among southern racists as a way to explain how certain "different" whites could behave so crudely.) Soon saying it may be altogether unacceptable. "In six months, no one will say 'white trash,'" predicts director John (Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom) Waters. "It's the last racist thing you can say and get away with." Certainly, too, New Yorkers are hardly in a position to patronize cultural regression elsewhere.